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October 1, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

The Onion

When thinking about multimedia journalism, the model I use these days is usually the onion. Not The Onion, but the layered vegetable. Yes, it's a cliche, but a useful one. Plus, onions are one of my favorite cooking ingredients, next to peppers, which don't lend themselves well to the analogy at hand.

If the financial crisis has highlighted any weaknesses in journalism, it's the need for better beginner-level primers on complex events. The most-acclaimed pieces on the crisis, after all, were things like TAL's "Giant Pool of Money," which was nothing more than a broad-level breakdown of the entire issue. It wasn't an in-depth evaluation of credit default swaps, or a detailed examination of the global financial system. But listeners to that program ended up with an overview of the crisis, what caused it, and the outcomes. Afterwards, they were better prepared to consume and understand other news about the crisis, which is crucial.

Now, there's nothing wrong with close-up niche journalism. I think it's incredibly important that media organizations continue to dig deeply into events--indeed, that's a valuable role that they play as watchdogs, and one that's in danger from newsroom budget cuts that eliminate investigative teams. But at the same time, the media need to acknowledge their role as gatekeepers. A good gatekeeper not only tells you what the news is, but why you should care, and what you need to know before you can fully comprehend it. Insistence that the media is only a transparent and objective transmitter, instead of a gatekeeper, thwarts the ability to do that, because it leaves media organizations skittish of looking like advocates or educators.

Faced with a complex set of issues like the bailout, and with media organizations not providing basic educational elements, readers have turned to new sources. Newspapers have been caught off guard by the rise of structures like Wikipedia. The old guard of journalism is repulsed by the idea of turning to users for content, and it pushes them even more into either local coverage or niche journalism. Meanwhile, the kinds of reporters/editors/commentators who cannot pull themselves away from shiny objects are overly enthusiastic to it, and see it as their saving grace. Take, for example, this idiotic post from Jeff Jarvis that was passed around today: The Building Block of Journalism Is No Longer the Article.

Jarvis starts with a decent thesis--we need new ways of organizing our news into larger stories--and quickly spins off into a vague fantasy wonderland of ponies, wikis, blogs, and aggregators. In other words, he looks for a technical solution to what is very much an editorial problem. Like many journalism technocrats, this is probably because in his eagerness to find the next big publishing trend, Jarvis is searching for excuses to blow up the print medium and start over, which includes making up flaws in the structure to support his argument. I actually agree with parts of Jarvis' end goal, but his underlying assertions--and his total lack of explanation for how we get to said goal--are faulty.

The problem with the credit crisis, for example, was never that we lacked information about it. Nobody needed an aggregator. Nobody needed another expert. What we needed, and what few people provided, was a decent explainer based solidly on that information and those experts, one that did a good job of synthesizing everything into an easily-understood and trustworthy package. That's the competitive advantage of journalism over community publishing: credibility, despite the best efforts of outlets to throw it away. Give people the same information that they're getting now from Wikipedia, but back it with solid fact-checking--you know, part of that whole "informed electorate" process that civics classes insist journalism exists to perpetuate.

In my own little part of CQ, we've been trying to put together story arcs to organize stories along these kinds of lines, although we haven't been nearly as successful as I'd like to be. Multimedia projects (to finally get back to the onion metaphor) fill a very specific role, as I see it: they give you a series of layers for your explainers, so that you can provide detail on demand, something that has actually been a weakness of print. If you produce an article (or worse, a video or radio show) to educate finance newcomers, for example, it'll inevitably frustrate more experienced members of the audience. Those forms of communication are usually written as linear.

What I'd like to do, and what I've been working on building, is a kind of multilayered multimedia experience--one that has a fast-track pathway for those just wanting a basic overview, but providing links, video, and graphics in increasing detail as the user digs into it. So the beginner can just hit play and watch the slideshow, while more knowledgeable (or more curious) viewers can explore the topic with more depth, all from the same application. It's an extension of my thoughts on "smart videos," as well as (believe it or not) a lesson learned from gaming. This exact same strategy is used in most modern entertainment software: a quick path for the casual player, hoards of side goals for the dedicated or obsessive. We're just delivering information instead of achievements.

You can't be everything to everyone with multimedia/interactive visualization, but you can provide a lot more layers of information quickly and easily. Eventually, I would hope, text publishing will catch up with this, but it requires a better system of tagging and sorting than even the best outlets are currently providing, as anyone who's tried to locate an old story or feature again on NYTimes.com or WashingtonPost.com can attest. If people like Jeff Jarvis really want to tap into the strengths of community-based energy for concrete improvements in journalism, maybe that's the place to start: not with the articles, which don't need fixing, but the index and semantic framework, which desparately do.

September 10, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Your Scattered Congress

Each year, CQ does an elaborate vote study for all 535 members of Congress, resulting in scores for their party unity (how often did they vote with the leadership) and presidential support (how often did they vote with the president's pre-announced positions). These are published in the weekly magazine, and this time they accompanied an article on the rising influence of moderates.

These features are always very popular--if nothing else, member offices call up wanting to know where they fall in the scores. If you've heard the numbers in speeches or ads about McCain's voting record, chances are they came from us. It's the kind of thing that CQ is really, really good at, because we just constantly hoover in all kinds of legislative data. But we're not always very good about getting that information back out to people.

So one of my projects before the convention hit was to create two views on the vote study workbooks: one was a simple, searchable table of all the scores with competitive races highlighted, and the other was a dynamic graphic of the scores as both scatter and distribution graphs. The second in that series went live just last week. So here's scores across the entire Bush term, as well as 2008 year-to-date scores.

I'm proud of these graphics for two reasons. One is that I think they look pretty good for a small operation like our shop, although I wish I could have left them with the original plain white backgrounds. But these graphics are also valuable to me because they show how we can start to tell stories using data visualization that don't come through in the table. You can see where people are, find the outliers, and see just how partisan Congress is. Latent narratives also emerge: look at the two graphs side by side, as in the picture below.

The top graph is the Bush term numbers for the House, the bottom is numbers for just 2008YTD. Although it's subtle, you can actually see how the Democrats have solidifed their positions, becoming more concentrated at a high level of party unity and low level of presidential support. You can also see the Republicans sprawling out in disagreement with the president, likely as his approval ratings have dropped. This trend is so pronounced that when I ran the distribution chart on the 2008YTD numbers, I actually had to change my scaling algorithm by 300% in order to fit the Democrats into the view pane. Likewise, in the Senate, I had to increase the range horizontally by 20% in order to keep some Republicans from shooting offscreen on the presidential support distribution.

As we get in the final 2008 numbers, and as I find the time, the next goal will be to continue to refine the story told in these charts. We plan to create a new graph with a slider, allowing readers to flip between each year since 2000 and watch the partisan shifts and alignment changes. It doesn't replace the tabular data, but it supplements it in a new and engaging way. And that's really what I think a good interactive graphic like this should do.

Filed under: journalism»writing

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Via (of all places) Raymond Chen's Old New Thing, this series of clips of Ira Glass explaining how to effectively tell stories in broadcast media is phenomenal. Perhaps the best part is the third clip in the series, when he actually plays a report he did for NPR at the age of 27, which is almost a parody of stuffy, sing-song radio delivery--the point being that it takes a long time to get good at this kind of thing.

August 21, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Twitter Is Bad News

It's not just angsty IT professionals who are using Twitter anymore. The service is a huge hit in newsrooms, if by newsrooms we mean "editors who consider themselves futurists." Slate is twittering the Olympics. CNN twitters headlines. The BBC twitters British celebrity gossip, if you get the wrong feed, and to my everlasting despair I generally do.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical. Actually, I'm more than skeptical. I think Twitter is Bad News, literally and figuratively.

  1. The people you've got won't use it. Reporters outside of tech beats are usually not incredibly forward-thinking people. They didn't grow up with IM, and they don't trust blogs, so the idea of Twitter itself simply doesn't resonate. And if they're any good, they don't particularly want to interrupt their work to send off 140 characters instead of a real story.
  2. The people who will use it probably shouldn't. For example, look at Slate's Olympic feed, which brings us such enlightening updates as "Well, the day has definitely taken a turn for the better" and "And there ... go ... the ... ashes" and "May and Walsh are the only Americans who still like Dubya." This isn't news coverage. It's low-grade, low-context snark I could get from anywhere.
  3. It's a needless duplication of technology. BBC sends out headlines and links via Twitter. Which sounds brilliant, except that we already have a proven system of distributing headlines, links, and even content. It's RSS, and it's built into everything already.
  4. It encourages Cable News Syndrome. You know, the tendency to think that just because the Internet's always available, you've got to be always publishing, no matter how trivial or repetitive? That empty text box on the Twitter form encourages the same thing. Think twice before hitting "submit" on that form--and then maybe think again.
  5. It doesn't leverage reporters' strengths. Let's pretend that your good reporters have gone to journalism school. They've learned about inverted pyramid, developing sources, hopefully even doing a little analysis and critical thinking. And now you want them to write 140 characters? That's not a story, it's a long headline. Anyone can do that. Everyone does do that. Just as bloggers can and should replace pundits as our source of amateur, uninformed commentary, Twitter should be an opportunity to crowdsource the soundbite, not further internalize it.
  6. It does enhance your weaknesses. Why do people hate the media? One reason is the sensationalism and the shallowness of it. Even setting aside the characteristics of the microblogging format, let's consider the very act of jumping onto the Twitter train: sensational? Shallow? Just a little?
  7. Hello, Failwhale. I know, it's gotten better. But this is still not a service that runs reliably. It's not a service that's going to run reliably for quite some time, if ever, given that the masterminds at Twitter headquarters seem unwilling to take common-sense steps at limiting the load (lowering the limit on following, for example). Heck, I got an over capacity error while I was checking something while writing this post. And you think it'll survive when something worth Twittering actually happens?

August 5, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

DTV Transition Package Posted

One of my big projects for CQ.com, an explainer package on the digital television transition, went live today. You can find it here. For this package, I wrote the script for the slideshow, as well as animating and programming said slideshow. I also shot, edited, and scored the short video with reporter Adrianne Kroepsch, and I assembled the interactive timeline, using MIT's SIMILE library, from research done by other team members.

This is the first cohesive, multimedia story-arc package put together by CQ. There are lots of things that we need to improve in the future--more newsroom involvement, better video editing and lighting, smart videos, and greater use of RSS and newsfeeds to extend the piece's lifespan. But it's a start. Overall, I'm happy with it.

August 1, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Searching for the Future of Journalism

We had an intern at the office finish up his term last week. He'd been there since the start of June, but it wasn't until this month that I really started working with him, having him help out on some Javascript, Flash, and general chart-making. Nice enough kid named Alex. He's decided that he wants to change his degree path a little, sprinkling some computer science into his journalism. He didn't really know how to react when I joked that it was like sprinkling arsenic on your cyanide pills.

After the obligatory farewell lunch, Alex went around the office with a plate of homemade cookies (like I said, nice kid) and he asked me about tools I'd recommend for him as a beginning programmer, since I was the one who told him about FlashDevelop and Firebug and all the other basic tools that I'm using myself at CQ. Now, obviously there are things I could have (and did) tell him: install Python or another scripting language, open up the Visual Basic editor in Word or Excel, try building Tetris or a goofy art project--play with things, right? There's lots of entry points out there for learning to coding.

But at the same time, there's something exquisitely ridiculous about anyone asking me for programming advice. Because while I spend a much-greater-than-expected amount of time at CQ writing ActionScript and Javascript and VBA, and while the rest of the newsroom finds this exotic and a little titillating, I'm not really trained in this kind of thing. I never took any courses in it, and I don't understand most of the theory. I'm just a guy who did some BASIC as a kid, then did some C as a hobby in college, mostly as a way to hack around on the various PDA platforms I'd buy off eBay whenever I got depressed. And it turns out that if you learn some BASIC, and some C, and you read a book or two about Java to wrap your head around object-oriented programming (under no circumstance should you try to write anything in Java, mind), then at that point YOU TOO can be a mediocre programmer in a variety of modern languages. This is not really a coherent learning experience that I want to encourage some hapless ex-intern to emulate.

In backpedaling away from offering concrete technical advice, I tried to riff on more general traits that are going to be essential in "new media" journalism going forward. Which is much more interesting than talking about programming, because part of what new media--a vaguely-defined term if ever there was one--means for journalism is a refocusing of how we view the profession itself. Not to mention that it doesn't require me to bluff nearly as much, and it lets me talk about digital audio, which is what I'd much prefer to wading around in Flash all day.

Here's the central point, in my opinion: journalism, at its most basic, generally amounts to asking people questions and writing down what they say. That's really most of the job. It used to be all of the job, back at the turn of the century, when reporting was basically unskilled labor, but now the profession has gone through a kind of degree inflation, and as a result there's a lot more stress on writing and analysis. Still, at its heart, when you strip away the parts that involve chasing down leads or cultivating sources, particularly when it comes to the more straightforward beats (assuming your newspaper hasn't eliminated them by now--cross your fingers, science reporters!), that's pretty much the job summary right there: ask questions, write down the answers. Repeat.

New media (meaning, in this context, the Web and its various hypertext/multimedia offerings) doesn't change that part of the job description. You may be recording the questions from audio tape or video or a database, and you may be distributing the answers via an interactive graphic or a slideshow or a Youtube clip. But the end goals are basically the same. Of course they are: people haven't stopped wanting to be informed, inasmuch as they ever did. The role of journalism in society doesn't change dramatically just because it's no longer limited to newsprint.

What does change is the relationship that readers have with that journalism. I think one of the big trends resulting from Internet technologies, socially, is that they've privileged the act of seeking information. We love to search, in other words. The Internet made looking for knowledge easy, and kind of fun--it lowered the barrier to entry for finding answers. So we don't necessarily wait for a media outlet to ask questions for us. Instead, we go to Google or Wikipedia or whatever our starting point might be, and we cast our own nets.

This new agency that searching gives us has a couple of side effects. One is that we have to become much involved in evaluating what we find for truthfulness and accuracy, roles that media has traditionally assigned to editors. We're all editors now, to some extent, which has eroded the credibility of "professional" editors. Another side effect is that we're becoming so much more comfortable with search that we expect to be able to use it everywhere. New operating systems come with search built into everything. Mobile devices let you search the geographically local area. Timeshifting television on a DVR is really just a way of searching for programs you want to watch, instead of letting them come to you as scheduled. Search: it's not just for lost keys anymore.

So if we're so much more active as knowledge-seekers these days, and as search engines get smarter, a big part of the new media role is to understand how to provide information--and more importantly, to make a lot more of it available in smart, searchable ways. It means we have to recognize that old limits on space are not just limited to column inches, but also apply to the dreaded soundbite--so make extended cuts available from the edited audio and video reports, with comprehensive metadata. We have to understand that people want to flex their searching/editing muscles and explore your coverage--so provide source data, or give interactive graphics the ability to juggle numbers in ways that might be outside the intended narrative. Instead of despairing the rise of blogs, realize that those blogs represent readers who look to media organizations as primary sources for answering their own, particular questions, and those readers should be harnessed. Tools like user tagging and social networking can be disruptive in theory, but they also improve your searchability--which is important, since every newspaper website I've ever used is incredibly inept at locating stories or features once they've fallen off the front page. Including the publication that signs my paycheck, frankly.

If this seems obvious, it's probably because it is. Why does it take media organizations so long to get their act together? There are lots of theories, but here's mine: the Internet is a great underminer of authority, and journalists are very protective of their authority. As the profession has gone through a shift from unskilled, interchangeable reporters (the reason the inverted pyramid was invented!) to more educated, higher-class journalists, it has also acquired a patina of respectability and a tendency for self-mythologizing. Those will probably not last too much longer--particularly if the industry continues to whine about Craigslist instead of addressing its problems head-on. As Dan Gillmor writes, there are a lot of organizations doing "almost journalism" these days. It's no longer something special and exclusive.

New media provides, for me, an opportunity to drag journalism back to its roots. Ask questions, write down the answers. As I told Alex, the challenge for the future is figuring out new values for "writing down" and learning to be more transparent about the process. That's not the kind of self-development rooted in technical skills. It's about developing the flexibility and initiative to jump-start conversations, instead of trying to dominate them. If that means giving up a little prestige, it's probably all for the better.

July 23, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

The Changing Newsroom

The Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its report on The Changing Newsroom, and I've got some reactions:

  • Most newspapers are cutting staff, but it's interesting that small newspapers are less affected. But then, small papers may be ahead of the curve when it comes to moves that larger papers are only now taking, such as outsourcing coverage to wire services and aggregators.
  • International news is the big loser for American papers in terms of allocated space and resources, which, given the dreadful international coverage available from television news, is kind of a tragedy for the country's awareness of events outside our borders. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, you can't just replace foreign news with aggregation of local content from foreign sources, because they lack the context American readers need.
  • National news is also shedding column inches and losing front-page preference as papers move toward a "hyper-local" approach--all stories must be seen through the prism of local coverage. I have mixed feelings about this, but I suspect it's another very bad move being made in imitation of small papers without understanding their context. Local coverage is great, but A) people in cities want a bigger picture and B) it's often written from the abysmally-limited perspective of editor and writers who are white and upper-middle class.
  • Science reporting's basically doomed at this point.
  • When editors reduce space allocated to crosswords, TV listings, or stock tables, they get many more letters compared to cuts in foreign news, investigative pieces, or specialized beats. Possible reason: Old people write disproportionate numbers of letters. Possible caveat: Old people may be a substantial portion of print readers these days.
  • Specialized positions like photographers and narrow beats are being cut, and other staff are being forced to generalize in order to fill those roles. This has apparently increased the stress on staff, as well as lowering the average level of topic experience available. It's spurred by the increased emphasis on multimedia reporting, meaning that each reporter has to fill lots of content holes. I think it doesn't hurt people to learn new skills, but I suspect this is highly visible to readers, particularly in economic reporting. When subject expertise is lost in favor of wide skill ranges, it not only influences the reporting directly, but also indirectly the choice of topics that editors assign and the depth to which they're pursued. It's TV news syndrome.
  • Some editors aren't afraid of the web anymore, which is nice. Some of them are a bit too gung-ho about it, if you ask me.
  • The realization may be dawning that the Internet does not turn every newspaper into a 24-hour news network that requires constant feeding, but does allow quality stories to be posted outside of the morning/evening edition cycle. It also allows papers to directly compete with TV news with timely video coverage, although I'm not sure that the News at Nine crowd is the same as the RSS reader crowd.
  • I'm not aware of, and the report doesn't mention, anyone directly linking their web and print content through technologies like URL shorteners or QR codes. This seems like kind of a loss, particularly given a focus on local content that could be geotagged.
  • The "Mobile Journalist" is still kind of a stupid idea--not because there's anything innately wrong with the idea of content producers operating out in the field on a regular basis, but more because editors continue to insist that it's some sort of special super-journalist instead of simply a good practice.
  • The wall between editors and revenue producers has started to crumble. I worry a lot about this, as I think many people already see the media as too corporate.
  • Somehow, despite cutting back on staff, resources, specialized coverage, and even newsprint thickness, editors at many papers are still basically optimistic about the future. Whether this is encouraging or evidence of delusion should be left as an exercise for the reader.

June 30, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Cashing Out

Q. How is a roulette wheel like the National Republican Senatorial Committee?

A. Both of them are moving a lot of money around Vegas. Also, they're both in the graphic I made to accompany the story:

In other news--literally: here's my Blue Dog Guide being linked by the Wall Street Journal. Well... by a very kind CQ editor who also writes for the Wall Street Journal. But it's the thought that counts.

June 25, 2008

Filed under: journalism»communication

Serial Killer

Went to go do a voice-over at the Bank the other morning--they needed it fast, and their usual go-to people had gone-to somewhere else. Turns out it was an old script that I'd actually recorded with someone else in the voiceover chair about a year ago. So fortunately for me, most of it (excepting the changes and additions) had already been edited for speech.

I could tell where they had added new paragraphs. Not because I remembered it, but because they do not use a serial comma. Now, there are people who believe that the serial comma is incorrect, including (sadly) many journalists and newspaper style guides. These people should never be allowed within 90 feet of a voiceover script. I personally feel that the serial comma is just good writing because it is usually less ambiguous than the alternative. Regardless, in voiceovers and speechwriting, it should be mandatory. I feel very, very strongly about this.

A common reason for including the serial comma in writing is to mimic the pacing of the spoken word. When reading from a script, it works the opposite way: the written work needs to be paced so that it can be quickly and effortlessly parsed by a reader. Try it yourself! Read the following sentence aloud:

To evaluate behavior, we can consult with supervisors to determine if staff are demonstrating the newly acquired knowledge, habits, skills or behaviors.
When reading a list in English, the last item is usually emphasized differently from the items in the middle--it's given a kind of "full stop" treatment. Without the serial comma, it's easy to skip over that emphasis and nonverbally combine skills and behaviors into a single list item, particularly if it coincides with a line break. This is confusing for listeners--and more importantly, it will frustrate good VO talent, who will want to use precious session time and vocal energy to do the line over properly.

To sum up: Good punctuation will keep your voiceover talent from killing you. Save lives. Use the serial comma.

June 20, 2008

Filed under: journalism»investigation

Truthiness

Politifact, by way of CQ Politics, finds that the National Journal's ranking of Obama as "most liberal" might be, just maybe, a little suspect due to methodological error.

This is not news, frankly. The idea that Obama is definitely and objectively the "most liberal"--in a Senate that includes self-described socialist Bernie Sanders--is ridiculous. And after the magazine described John Kerry in 2004 as "most liberal," call me paranoid, but I suspect there's an editorial trend or narrative in play here.

But it is also amusing to me that this comes by way of Politifact, which is the CQ/St. Petersburg Times "truth squad" or factchecking team. In an election year, these things pop up like roaches in a dirty-bomb strike zone. They are big fun for journalists and editors--examine speeches and commercials for semantic slips and distortions, then trot out a few paragraphs of dry prose explaining exactly how and why that statement is or is not "spin." And perhaps, in this political era of Nixonian parsing, we need that.

But I hate truthsquadding, as it's called around the newsroom. It is the worst kind of gotcha journalism, and I think the industry can do better.

The basic idea of these fact-check columns, as far as I'm concerned, is flawed. It's flawed because it's redundant: our job, as journalists, should be to tell the truth and explain the obscure--to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as they say, and with emphasis on the latter. If reporters are doing their jobs, there should be no need for a "special" department devoted to catching inaccuracies, because it should already be happening in the regular coverage. The fact that such departments exist is a tacit admission that accuracy isn't a concern elsewhere. And since I happen to know that CQ and St. Pete both have hard-working and dedicated fact-checking and research teams that go over our coverage with a fine-toothed comb, I sometimes wonder why it is that we are acting like we don't.

But more importantly, truth-squadding is journalism that refuses to see the big picture. To some extent, on the left or the right, who cares if someone takes some liberties when bragging on themselves, or when denigrating their opponents? What would be more important would be to examine not the wording of their speeches, but the impacts and outcomes of their policies.

On the other hand, that would require a lot of work, and a lot of interviews with experts, and possibly passing the reporting work over to someone with relevant expertise instead of the house pundit. And if the op-ed pages are any indication, I'm not sure that the media as an industry is willing to take that step.

Future - Present - Past